Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama's Strategic Wasteland

In December 2008, Joe Klein of Time magazine called the war in Afghanistan an "aimless absurdity." Our new president is onboard with committing 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Pentagon isn't certain what to tell the additional troops to do there or even what kind of troops it wants to send. According to the Washington Post, "the incoming administration does not anticipate that the Iraq-like 'surge' of forces will significantly change the direction of a conflict that has steadily deteriorated over the past seven years."

So why are they executing an Iraq-like "surge" of forces?

No, After You…

One senior U.S. military commander told the Post "We have no strategic plan. We never had one." He was referring to the Bush administration's Afghanistan program, but he might as well have been talking about Iraq and Iran and every other tentacle of Bush era foreign policy. The senior commander also said that Obama's first order of business will be to "explain to the American people what the mission is" in Afghanistan. Obama will be hard pressed to explain what the mission is if he doesn't have a strategy.

A December New York Times article stated that "Taking a page from the successful experiment in Iraq, American commanders and Afghan leaders are preparing to arm local militias to help in the fight against a resurgent Taliban." Arming local militias was only part of the "successful" experiment in Iraq. The larger part of the experiment involved bribing militias not to use the arms we gave them, a course of action that has further cemented the ostensible necessity for U.S. troops to stay in that country well beyond Obama's promised 16 month deadline. The surge has been so successful that, after two years, it's still in effect; we have several thousand more troops in Iraq than we did when the surge began in January 2007, and it still hasn't produced its stated purpose of political unification. Maybe that's okay. Objectives seem to have gone the way of the foreign policies of yesteryear.

The hero of the Iraq surge, General David Petraeus, is now in charge of Central Command, the area of responsibility that encompasses Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a November press conference at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Petraeus said that, "an overall effort is essential," but declined to give details on what the effort might consist of.

Antonio Giustozzi, an Afghanistan expert at the London School of Economics, puts it bluntly: "In the end, I believe it will boil down to bribing people into joining militias." He cautions, "How military effective [this is] going to be remains to be seen."

Bribing militias to fight the Taliban won't be effective at all if the Pentagon decides not to fight the Taliban. As analyst Gareth Porter notes, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his rear echelon military functionaries have already had months to develop a new strategy, and the bottle is still spinning. Some officers have suggested we shift from killing the Taliban to protecting the population (from the Taliban, I'm guessing). Other proposed strategies include offering the Taliban protection from international forces in Afghanistan if they agree to undertake peace negotiations, and many believe the only solution is to offer a share of political power to the Taliban, in which case—arguably, at least—we might not want to kill them at all.

Then, as in Iraq, we'll have to stick around forever to make sure the militias we paid to kill the Taliban don't kill them or turn on us. Of course, they probably won't kill the Taliban if we don't pay them to, and they pretty much can't kill the Taliban if we don't arm them, and they can't turn on us if we leave; but what kind of strategy would that be?

Throw Soldiers at It

For all the machinations of the Bush administration, its standard operating procedure was quite simple, more of a tactic than a strategy. The closest analogy to it I can think of is ice hockey's dump-and-chase play. Hockey teams with overwhelming speed and size don't bother with coordinated maneuvers; they simply sling the puck into the opponent's zone, skate after it, knock the other guys into the boards and try to slide the puck to an open teammate in front of the net. If the tactic doesn't work, they just do it again, and again, and again. If the opponent scores, the dump-and-chase team shakes it off and goes back to dumping and chasing and never stops doing it.

It's not long before all the dump-and-chase team knows how to do is dump and chase, and after a time it's too late for them to relearn how to skate and pass and play as a team. The U.S. has been playing dump-and-chase since the end of World War II. The stronger and bigger and faster we got relative to everyone else, the more we played dump-and-chase, and the less effective armed force became as a tool of foreign policy. Rather than reexamine the efficacy of our methods, we merely invested in an ever more powerful but increasingly impotent military.

So it is that we invaded Iraq on fuzzy pretexts with no idea of what we'd do after we "won," without even a way of determining we'd accomplished our mission other than hanging a sign behind our commander in chief that said we had.

We're about to escalate yet another enigmatic war with no particular purpose in mind. Mr. Obama says Afghanistan is now the "central front on terror." The central front has moved from Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran to Syria to North Korea to Pakistan and back to Afghanistan again. That's a boatload of central fronts for a war that doesn't have any front lines. I can't wait to hear who Obama says the latest incarnation of Hitler is.

Obama says he wants to make sure Afghanistan "cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States." Nobody can actually launch an attack on much of anything from the mountains of Afghanistan. You can plan an attack from there, but you can plan an attack on the United States from a picnic blanket spread out in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And oh yeah, the Taliban, whether we decide to kill them or not, had nothing to do with 9/11, and have no interest in being party to a second one, and wouldn't be fighting us if we hadn't pitched a tent city in their front yard.

I hope young Mr. Obama thinks good and hard before he decides to send more G.I.s to risk life and limb in a third world wasteland for no coherent reason. I grew sick from watching the last commander in chief treat our troops like hockey pucks.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now.


  1. "I grew sick of watching the last commander in chief treat our troops like hockey pucks."

    You and me both.

  2. Anonymous9:46 AM

    I think it may be more accurate to say that the American presence in Afghanistan is "for no clearly stated reason."

    Since the 1940s, the ultimate guarantor of America's global supremacy over its European and Asian allies has been its close alliance with the oil producing countries of the Middle East. The European nations, and Japan, which had to learn its lesson the hard way, have known that if they seriously cross the United States, they will have the oil supplies from the Middle East cut off. In these days, we are seeing how the Russians are able to concentrate minds amazingly well by shutting off their gas supplies.

    The next game in oil production is the Caspian; out of which there are three ways: Russia (hardly popular on Capitol Hill), Iran (even less popular on Capitol Hill), and Afghanistan (our newest ally in the War on Terror.)

    One can only conjecture how the geopolitical tectonic system would realign were the Europeans and Japanese to believe that the Veto they had dreaded were no more.

  3. So Afghanistan is both the newest central front and our newest ally?

    Sounds more like Wacky Racers than modern warfare.


  4. "the area of responsibility that encompasses Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan" Afghanistan is unconquerable for long, and ungovernable by tradition. However, it provides a corridor to attack Pakistan under the guise of quelling a powerful growing insurgency of Islamic fundamentalists that are now within sight of controlling Western Pakistan. Meanwhile the incompetent Pakistani government dithers about India, while the wolf chews its behind.

  5. Quite a show on the mall in DC right now

  6. Anonymous5:21 PM

    Afghanistan is a blotch on some maps, but hardly a nation state in any real sense, and, ergo, no ally in the normal sense of the word. Like the "War on Cancer," the "War on Drugs," and the "War on Poverty," the "War on Terror" is a slogan used to legitimize bureaucracies that perpetuate the very problems they are supposedly intended to resolve; you've written about how up is down when it comes out of the mouths of today's politicians.

    I haven't read my Clausewitz in a good decade, but I'd imagine that he agrees with me that if you control your ally's or your adversary's supply lines, you have them at your mercy, and they know it.

    When you look at control freaks like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Hillary and the rest, you can bet good money that some of them used their control of their cold war allies to make irrefusable offers; and you can bet that you'll see the sweet deals they coerced unravel if the US ever loses its chokehold on their economies.

    As for me, I'd much rather the US control the world's flows of oil than China or Russia, but I hard-pressed to see how this will happen as long as the US try to impose military solutions to what are political problems in Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, etc.

  7. General Quarters5:26 PM

    Most of the active pucks really like the game (didn't you?). Only in the leisure of retirement can a poor old pucker put his career into proper perspective. I used to gallop toward the sound of the guns; didn't think too hard on who they was shootin' at or why. For lack of introspection, the troops get slapped around by a CinC who really couldn't give a flying puck about them.


  8. Not ever having been a "hockey puck", I'm going to stay out of that discussion.

    If we didn't learn from the Soviets, on Afghanistan, we are too dumb to learn.

    Commander, I borrowed some of your words, and pictures. (I'll credit you for both.) I am composing a response to my Congress Critter. He wrote me and answered my concerns about the situation in the Gaza Strip. When you (as he did) capitalize Gaza Strip --- that's almost like making it into --- what a territory? an occupied territory? I'm not sure.

    Whatever, it isn't a Palestinian State.

    Anyway, he could use some enlightenment, some education if you will, and I don't mind providing it.

    Thanks for both. (words and pictures.)

  9. If you can use my words to grind glass into the eyes of your Congress being, please be my guest.


  10. Yeah,, Afghanistan. Sounds like a lovely place, well worth fighting over. Americans who'd like a painless introduction to soldiering in that vacation spot might do worse than to read the novel Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser. The U.S. military might pick up some useful tips, as well.

    Remember, guys, when you're retreating from Kabul in the dead of winter, make sure you bring lots of blankets and hot water bottles. Oh, and ammuniton (here, your logistics officers might might want err on the side of "too much" rather than "too little").

    And be sure to leave your general behind...

  11. Anonymous10:43 AM


    If I hear you correctly the us military has become to foreign policy what the Hanson brothers are to hockey?

    I appreciate you call for a return to what Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) called "old time hockey"...Dit Clapper and Eddie Shore...


  12. I'll never forget watching the Canadiens literally skate rings around the St. Louis Blues in the first playoffs of the expansion era (70 or 71, I guess).

    Lost interest in hockey about the time the Flyers made dump-and-chase the new Canadian national pastime.


  13. Anonymous6:53 PM

    Commander Jeff, you've got it pegged. We won't win there (but then again who wins in a war anyhow??)Afghan-quick-s(t)an(d)is more like it.

  14. After 8 years of frat boys running policy could it be that we will have an actual adult running things?
    Of course, Mrs Clinton has proven herself to be a really poor manager, but perhaps symbolism will trump competence this time.
    As I read history-having been retired for the last 10 years I can, and have, indulged myself- since the Second World War and up to and including Iraq and A'stan-and reading Andrew J Bacevich on what it all really ment, I think that we have fought
    WWIII and now we are in WWIV and have been for many years because both III and IV overlap. But, as always, american militarism will out, and we will just kick the can another 10-20 years down the road

  15. I'm on the fence about the world war business. I sometimes agree, I sometimes think calling the past fifty years or so a world war is a trick to justify a wartime economy.


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